Mary Jo Deegan
African American race relations authority and
academic administrator Charles Spurgeon John
son was born in Bristol, Virginia on July 24,
1893. The grandson of a slave and the son of a
Baptist minister, Johnson was inspired by reli
gious ideals and a commitment to end social
inequality. He graduated from Wayland Acad
emy and studied at Virginia Union University,
both in Richmond, Virginia. He completed a BA
in sociology from the University of Chicago
in 1917. After America entered World War I,
he enlisted in the army. He returned to the uni
versity in 1919 and begin his graduate studies
with Robert Ezra Park.
In the summer of 1919 a major race riot
occurred in Chicago, and the Chicago Commis
sion on Race Relations, under the auspices of
the Chicago Urban League, began to investi
gate the conditions leading up to it. Johnson
directed this research from 1919 to 1921. In
1922 the commission published The Negro
in Chicago, wherein Johnson made significant
In 1921 he moved to New York to direct
research for the National Urban League. From
1923 to 1928 he edited their magazine, Opportu
nity, an important publishing outlet during the
Harlem Renaissance. It influenced the careers of
many artists including Langston Hughes, Zora
Neale Hurston, and Arnaud Bontemps.
In 1929 Johnson moved to Nashville, Ten
nessee, where he chaired the social sciences
department at Fisk University. He hired col
leagues formerly associated with the Chicago
School of Sociology, including Horace Cayton,
E. Franklin Frazier, and Park after the latters
retirement from the University of Chicago.
Johnsons books The Negro in American Civi
lization (1930), Shadow of the Plantation (1934),
and The Negro College Graduate (1936) empha
sized the importance of scientific, objective
goals to collect and interpret empirical data.
Education was a major source for social change
to obtain social equality. Johnson documented
institutionalized discrimination in these books
but rarely commented upon it or supported
During World War II, Johnson shifted his
conservative politics by openly attacking segre
gation. He published The Monthly Summary,
which provided information on race relations
throughout the country. In 1943 his work on
segregation influenced Gunnar Myrdals An
American Dilemma (1944). In 1944, Johnson
began annual Race Relations Institutes (RRI),
attended by national leaders. Johnson became
the first black president of Fisk University in
1946, a position he held until 1956.
National Association for the Advancement of
Colored People (NAACP) attorney Thurgood
Marshall often addressed the RRI in the 1950s
and Johnson provided him with sociological
data and interpretations that Marshall used in
his legal briefs for Brown v. Board of Education
(1954). This landmark decision eliminated the
legal justification for separate but equal pub
lic facilities and set in motion many public
protests in the later Civil Rights Movement.
By the late 1940s Johnson was appointed to
several powerful positions: as a United States
delegate to UNESCO (19467), a member of
the Fulbright Board of Foreign Scholarships
(194754), and a delegate to the Assembly of the
World Council of Churches (1948). His balance
between objective social science and a more
critical, change oriented stance helped Johnson
obtain philanthropic funds, create a Southern
center for studying racial injustice, and develop
a global network supporting black artists.
On October 27, 1956, Johnson died suddenly
in Louisville, Kentucky of a heart attack. He
was mourned by educational, sociological, and
political leaders who recognized his contribu
tions to all these fields.
SEE ALSO: American Dilemma, An (Gunnar
Myrdal); Brown v. Board of Education; Chicago
School; Civil Rights Movement; Frazier, E.
Franklin; Park, Robert E. and Burgess, Ernest W.
REFERENCES AND SUGGESTED
Gilpin, C. J. & Gasman, M. (2003) Charles S. Johnson.
Foreword D. L. Lewis. SUNY Press, Albany, NY.
Robbins, R. (1996) Sidelines Activist. University of
Mississippi Press, Jackson.